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Hydro – Part 3, Small Hydroelectric Plants

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John Benson's picture
Senior Consultant, Microgrid Labs

PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: Microgrid Labs, Inc. Advisor: 2014 to Present Developed product plans, conceptual and preliminary designs for projects, performed industry surveys and developed...

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  • Aug 17, 2021

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As I frequently do in my posts, below I will focus on California, specifically what California defines as small hydroelectric plants: those that are 30 MW or smaller. Also, in California, facilities smaller than 30 MW capacity are generally considered an eligible renewable energy resource, and large hydroelectric facilities are generally not considered a renewable energy resource.

This post will start with a review of all hydro in California. Then it will review small hydro, including technology, followed by some resources for those considering a small hydro project.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Aug 25, 2021

While hydro is a useful part of a balanced energy portfolio, the headwinds to using the resource are increasing. The drought in the West is certainly a major concern. However, the movement to tear down dams is an increasing threat. Fundamentally, comes down to those wanting “natural rivers” and fish (mostly salmon) versus electrical power. Really tough dilemma.

The issue of the natural environment versus energy production is not limited to dams. Both wind and solar have significant adverse impacts because vast tracts of land are required.

From a purely environmental standpoint, efficient and powerful energy resources with small footprints and high reliability are the most desirable. That points directly at nuclear power at gas turbines. 

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Aug 25, 2021

Hi Michael, Thanks for the comments.

I assume you saw my post on rooftop solar on the 12th. Even this will be a struggle, but at least has a large potential to expand. I would guess that our utility rates will become high enough to strongly incent a large percentage of residences to install PV+storage.

Regarding the drought, we are in the middle of a double-dip La Nina right now, which means our drought will probably only get worse in the 2021/22 rain season. For more information on this go through the link below, which is to Dr. James Hanssen's site, and download his posts of July 13 and Aug 13. The latter describes that global warming appears to be accelerating, and Dr. Hansen suggests why.


Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Aug 26, 2021

As a kid in San Diego in the 50’s, remember peering down at a nearly empty Lake Hodges after years of very little rain. Have also seen water levels at Lake Shasta at the top of the dam.

California is basically a desert that has always experienced droughts of varying severity and lengths.

Not so sure climate change is the key root cause, of California’s, rather more likely lies with a lot more people living in a desert than in the old days. That greatly magnifies the underlying problem of limited and unpredictable availability of water resources.
The ability of California hydro dams to provide electricity is similarly impacted. Today we are also seeing limitations on the normally abundant Pacific Northwest power production due to reduced water. That has happened in past, but not normally at the same time as water issues in California. Climate change? I doubt it, just the unpredictable and chaotic nature of the Wester climate. Should remember that not that long ago (thousands of years) Southern California was teeming with all types of large mammals that disappeared as the climate became drier. Man had nothing to do with that change in climate.

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Aug 27, 2021

Hi Michael:

Shasta is at 28% of capacity. The link below shows the current capacity of all of California's significant reservoirs (and other water information).

This link was in part 2 of this series.

I've lived in Livermore for several decades, and my parents lived in Yreka for many years, so I used to drive over Shasta a couple of times a year. I don't know if its been this low, but its been very low in decades past.

Yes California, and other parts of the west are prone to drought. The fact that climate change makes it warmer, makes the negative results of droughts much worse, especially vegetation dryness and thus wildfires. I don't know if this will be a another record wildfire year, (I plan to write a post on this when the season is over), but it will certainly be a bad one.

There are and will be many other effects from climate change, and I've written about many of these. But the really bad thing is, that we can't predict many of them. I hope none of them make Homo Sapiens an extinct species.



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Thank John for the Post!
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